The night of 15 November 2018 will live long in the memory of Thabang Moroe. On that last night before Cricket South Africa’s (CSA) potential Christmas stocking filler, its chief executive was a bundle of nerves.
The event most people had figured might be better left alone, accepted as the preserve of other nations with deeper pockets and infinitely fewer teething problems, was just hours away. After the late, desperately embarrassing postponement of the glitzy Global League T20 in 2017, the pervading pessimism was not misplaced. Another horror show might have proved to be South African cricket’s Titanic moment – that horrible sound of iceberg on human hope.
Early the following evening, at an intrigued Newlands Stadium in Cape Town, the Mzansi Super League (MSL) set sail when the Jozi Stars collided with the Cape Town Blitz. “I would be lying if I said I slept at all that night. There were so many worries and nerves, because this thing was finally happening,” Moroe reflects. “We only had four months to put this thing together, and so many of the pieces of the puzzle came together at the last minute.”
Months of worrying
On the back of the Global League T20 debacle, there was understandable trepidation around this project, even from so-called friends of cricket. And yet, Moroe and CSA had no choice. They had to take the plunge, even without a headline sponsor, a lucrative broadcast deal, and without some of their star players all available at once.
The reason for all this upheaval over having a T20 tournament of some repute is very simple. When this format of the game gets it right – on a good pitch, with a big crowd and brought to life by a gaggle of gung-ho superstars going hell for leather – it is truly intoxicating. It’s cricket cocaine, a heady hit of entertainment adrenalin that puts bums on seats and wads of cash in pockets. It makes good men and women do crazy things because the returns on investment can be astonishing.
The Indian Premier League (IPL), not yet in its teens, now pays an average weekly wage that rivals sugar daddy strongholds such as football (American and actual) and basketball. For a long time, South Africa has wanted a piece of the pie for which it ironically had the original recipe way back at the turn of the century with the Discovery Challenge, a four-team shootout in one day.
It was fun and fast. But South African cricket rested on its laurels. England and then, inevitably, India quickly turned a novelty into a business juggernaut. In 2009, the IPL even came to South Africa, and was happy to pay a pretty penny to its hosts. “People forget that the IPL came here and dropped R400 million [for us] to host at short notice. So, if there were any problems that came up at the time, they could buy their way through those problems,” says Moroe. “We simply don’t have that luxury.”
Free-to-air a bonus for all
Pure economics, and some hardball from anticipated broadcast partners, forced CSA to the SABC. The public broadcaster doesn’t have a lot going for it, but it does have a secure, large audience. “The numbers we have had from the public broadcaster are incredible. We have reached homes and lives that we previously had no access to,” Moroe points out.
Players, too, have seen and felt the difference being on free-to-air TV. “I was at a petrol station the other day, and two of the attendants were talking about the Mzansi Super League and which game they could get to. They couldn’t have known that I was a Jozi Stars player, but to hear that kind of conversation was a first for me, after playing professional cricket here for years. I have been on countless flights around the country before, and never heard people actively discussing domestic cricket. It was nice to hear.”
Those were the words of Rassie van der Dussen, one of Jozi Stars’ most potent weapons with willow in hand. He reflected on the changing face of South African cricket audiences while sitting next to Nono Pongolo, an unlikely hero at the start of this tournament. Pongolo, a bowler from the Highveld Lions, was pencilled in to be part of the tournament’s commentary team. He has dabbled as an analyst for international matches before. But a late call-up saw him drop the mic and play a decisive hand in the Johannesburg outfit earning the right to host the playoff. He took catches, claimed key wickets and, most memorably, clubbed two successive sixes in the final over to hijack a pivotal win in Durban. Quite literally he reached for the Stars.
These are the stories the tournament couldn’t have scripted, along with those it had banked on playing out at the beginning. “This tournament has already shown, in its infancy, the talent we have in South Africa – guys like Anrich Nortje, whom it was a huge blow to lose so early. I would have loved to see him in partnership with Dale Steyn for longer, just like we have seen the partnership at the Jozi Stars between [Kagiso] KG Rabada and Duanne Olivier,” Moroe explains.
He goes further, enthusing that the fan in him had loved the battles between superstars. “I loved that clash between KG and Quinny [Quinton de Kock] at the Wanderers. We all loved it when AB [de Villiers] came up against KG, because these are the duels we want to see.”
In that sense, the Mzansi Super League has delivered. The quality improved week by week, especially when Proteas players came and provided the gloss needed at the business end. That there were three teams vying for one playoff spot on the final day of the round-robin stage speaks to how competitive the tournament was, and bodes well for the future.
Moroe says there have been a few enquiries from some international stars, who are keen to come on board in 2019. Their influence cannot be overstated, because their presence adds weight to the competition. Chris Gayle might not have made the runs he is renowned for, but the Jozi Stars batsmen insist they are better players for having shared a changing room and a drink with the “Universe Boss”.
Now that this first, tentative step has been taken, there are some big decisions to be made in the next few months. Moroe reveals there have been some South African corporates that are ready to talk, and he hopes to have deals in place by midway through a hectic 2019.
It is all well and good making an impression, but the key motivation behind this venture was to make money. A broadcast deal could be lucrative, but Moroe is loathe to walk away from the public broadcaster. The challenge is to find common ground, where they can keep providing millions of South Africans with live action, while also making the profits that a tournament of this potential could realise. “You can’t argue with the numbers. We have put cricket into homes that previously didn’t have access to some of these young players. And that is hugely important for us.”
There were some other little “glitches” that had to be dealt with. One of those is the timing of the tournament in the calendar. “We were lucky in the sense that, in terms of the Future Tours programme, our previous CEO was able to negotiate very well and provide us with this window in the year, where we have our Proteas available.”
However, a November start is problematic for students and scholars, and that is exactly the market Moroe wants to tap into. “It is something we need to look at, while also bearing in mind the international demands,” says Moroe.
“If we push it back a couple of weeks, we start encroaching on the Boxing Day Test, and we need to have that conversation with [Proteas coach] Ottis Gibson about when he wants his players to start getting ready for the tests. But these are good problems,” Moroe says, smiling.
A lot can happen in just a month, and Moroe has gone from sleepless to watching dreams come true right before his very eyes. “We’ve given South Africa something to work on. There were glitches here and there, but we can build on this.” But, he adds, that it’s “not up to me as an individual to take this to the level of the IPL”.
“We will need to work together, as people who have an interest in South African cricket. If we are all pulling in the same direction, there is no reason this cannot work.”